The Establishment of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor
If it be true, as the prophet says, that abyss calls to abyss, 1 we can say even more truly that blessing attracts blessing, and charity, which is the source of all virtues, in accomplishing one goal, begins to seek another. This was the case here. The Confraternities of Charity spoken of in the preceding chapter led to a new Company of women bearing the same name and calling themselves Daughters of Charity. God had called Monsieur Vincent to found a Congregation of men to evangelize the poor. He willed that he would also be the father and founder of a new community of women for the service of these same poor people, particularly the sick. This new work has to be attributed to God’s providence, since Monsieur Vincent did not originate the idea and did not think it proper to become involved in a new undertaking such as this. This is how things came about.
When the Confraternities of Charity had first been established in the villages, as we have said, the women gave themselves to the service of the sick. They would go one after another to visit them and help them however they could. When these same Confraternities of Charity were established in Paris, the women, moved by the same charitable spirit, wished to visit the sick in their homes and give them the same services as their country counterparts. Soon these confraternities multiplied and enrolled several noblewomen, who could not for one reason or another, such as their husbands’ opposition, perform the usual services for the poor: bringing them food, making their beds, preparing medicines, and other such things. Since they themselves employed servants in their own homes for taking care of these chores, they were unable or unwilling to do them personally. They perceived that it was absolutely necessary to have some servants only for handling services for the sick poor. They would distribute food each day, or the required medicines.
This situation was brought to Monsieur Vincent’s attention in 1630. He considered the matter carefully before God and recognized the need for some remedy for the situation. He recalled that in the villages were some good women who did not want to marry or who did not have the necessary dowry to become religious. Among these women some would be glad to give themselves to the service of the sick poor for the love of God. God’s providence so arranged things that at his next missions he found two women who agreed to what he proposed, and were sent, one to the parish of Saint Sauveur, 2 and the other to the parish of Saint Benedict. Later, others came, and were sent to Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet and elsewhere.
Both Monsieur Vincent and Mademoiselle le Gras offered advice as to how they were to comport themselves in regard to the noble ladies on the one hand and to the sick poor on the other. These women came from a wide background and did not communicate among themselves or any central authority other than the ladies of the parish were they lived. Because they had no training in how to minister to the sick, some could not measure up to what was expected. These would have to be sent away, but since few came to take their place, the ladies and the poor alike fell into their original difficulties.
This made it obvious that a larger number of young women was needed to serve in all the sections of Paris in which the Confraternity of Charity had been established. They needed to be taught how to care for the sick, how to get and prepare medicines, but beyond this they needed to be taught to pray and to live a spiritual life, for it would be impossible to stay long in such a painful service to the poor and to conquer the natural repugnances of their position without a solid foundation of true virtue.
Monsieur Vincent recognized the great need, and besides, he was importuned by the ladies concerned to undertake the formation of these countrywomen. He found it difficult to agree to do so. Since he was not a man to jump at a first idea, he was content to have recourse to God in prayer until Providence would make known how to answer this need. He was not mistaken in this, for soon afterwards some other young women came. He chose three or four whom he sent to Mademoiselle le Gras at her home in the parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. He had alerted her beforehand to receive, lodge, and maintain them in her house, so that she could train them to be worthy of the vocation to which Providence had called them.
This took place in 1633 3 solely as an experiment, but God so blessed these beginnings that the number of women increased. They then began a small community which served as the nursery of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor in the parishes, hospitals, and wherever else they were invited.
Seeing the way God blessed this small community, and moved by her love for the poor, Mademoiselle le Gras began to devote herself more and more to their formation. She appealed often to Monsieur Vincent to know whether she should dedicate herself to this particular work and if she should follow this inclination as divine inspiration. His reply was in keeping with his usual thought, that in new and extraordinary things, we ought first try them out, a little at a time.
Please, once and for all, do not even think of this occupation until our Lord manifests his will. Often we desire something that seems to come from God but in reality does not. God permits these desires to prepare our souls for what Providence has in store for us. Saul sought his lost donkeys but found a kingdom. Saint Louis set out to conquer the Holy Land but overcame himself, gaining thereby a heavenly crown. You wish to become the servant of these poor women, but God wishes you to belong to him alone, perhaps not in that particular way. May your heart, Mademoiselle, honor the tranquility of the heart of our Lord, for then it will be prepared to serve him. The kingdom of God is found in peace in the Holy Spirit. It will reign in you if you remain at peace. Do so, please, and thus honor the God of peace and love. 4
In another letter, he wrote:
I do not see clearly yet what God wishes in this matter. I am not able to discern his will. Mademoiselle, please pray to God for this purpose during the holy season when he pours out the graces of the Holy Spirit most abundantly. 5
By these letters and others he wrote on this matter, we can see how hesitant he was in discerning the true vocation of this virtuous woman in regard to the formation of the country girls. Not only did he judge her capable of greater things than that, which at the time appeared insignificant, but he did not want to put limits on the talents and graces she had received from God. His own humility would not allow him to think that God would use him to direct one so favored by Providence as Mademoiselle. 6 He kept her two years in this uncertainty, refusing to give a definite answer. He would exhort her to place her trust uniquely in God, assuring her that she would never be deceived. 7 His own humility made him wish that God would act without involving himself. He thought he was good for nothing except to thwart the designs of Providence. It seemed, on the contrary, that God wished to use his faithful servant despite himself, to begin and to lead this work so important for his glory.
Lastly, his repeated recommendation to Mademoiselle le Gras that her confidence in God would never be deceived was verified in time by the extraordinary blessing God bestowed upon her first efforts which she had undertaken and continued only through her spirit of obedience. We could say that Monsieur Vincent was deceived, for he thought only of training a small group of young women to help in the parishes of Paris. God so multiplied this company in numbers and in grace that Monsieur Vincent and this virtuous Mademoiselle had the consolation of seeing in their own lifetimes its expansion to twenty-five or thirty places in Paris, into more than thirty other villages, hamlets, and towns in various provinces of France, and even into Poland, where the queen, by her zeal and charity, wished to aid the poor of her realm.
We see what fruits Monsieur Vincent’s humility produced, even if he did not think of founding this new community of women. God was pleased to bestow such a dew of blessings and graces upon them that they were sought for everywhere, to such a point that they could not be fully trained. These women were (if we may speak this way) plucked up from the seed-bed almost as soon as they were planted there, before they had been fully formed. God in his mercy helped them to such an extent that their frugality, industry, love of poverty, patience, modesty, and charity served to edify people wherever they were sent.
The first foundations of their community were laid in the house of Mademoiselle le Gras in the parish of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. Later, on the advice of Monsieur Vincent, she transferred the community to another house half a league from Paris in the village of La Chapelle. 8 This was thought to be a more suitable place to house, feed, and clothe in country fashion the candidates destined to serve the poor. Finally, around 1642 they returned to a house in the Saint Lazare section of Paris, where they remain to this day. 9
Monsieur Vincent prescribed rules and constitutions for them, which were approved by the archbishop of Paris. By his authority he constituted them a Company or Congregation under the title Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor, and under the direction of the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission. The king confirmed and authorized their establishment by letters patent, confirmed by the Parlement of Paris. 10
Besides their service to the sick poor, they devoted themselves in several places to the education of young girls, teaching them to know and serve God and to fulfill the principal duties of the Christian life.
This enterprise seems small to the eyes of the world, which judges things only by appearance and glitter. Those who reflect how precious works of mercy and charity are in the sight of God, and how strongly they are recommended by our Lord, know that this institute, so small in our eyes, is great in the eyes of God. It is the more meritorious in its activities in that Jesus Christ has expressly declared that he regards as done to himself what has been done in favor of the poor. Besides, charity towards the poor is the purer and more perfect, for the only thanks received from those served is often contradiction, complaints, and ingratitude.
Using the humility and charity of Vincent de Paul, God brought this small community to birth. It produced in the past, and continues to produce today, the fruits of humility, patience, charity, and the other virtues most pleasing to the Son of God, and most recommended in the Gospel, as we shall see in Book Two.
- Ps 42:8.
- Marguerite Naseau, the first Daughter of Charity.
- November 29, vigil of the Feast of Saint Andrew. See CED IX:1-14.
- CED I:113-14.
- CED I:200.
- CED IX:52-57.
- Convinced that it was God’s will that Saint Vincent approved of her desire, Louise pronounced the formula of her consecration on March 25, 1634. From this time on, March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, is the day when the Daughters of Charity renew their own consecration.
- La Chapelle is now a part of Paris, and nearly adjacent to Saint Lazare.
- The new house was directly across the street from Saint Lazare.
- CED XIII:578-87.